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The Naming Project: Ariel

What We Know About Ariel

Ariel’s name appears in only one document, a letter written March 15, 1847, in Washington DC. In it, Dolley Madison indicated that her friend and advisor John Young Mason had sent Ariel to relay a message verbally, but Ariel’s report had left Dolley perplexed:

“Our little Ariel has been puzzled in bearing your last message to me & thereby executing your important mandate — her memory was in fault & I am much inclined to take the pen to tell you that my own mind has become a chaos by dwelling on the subject.

My confidence in the honorable & [melicate] men she mentioned forbids the fear of appearing in their eyes a mercenary receiver when they come forth to offer aid where I cannot doubt that it will be in my power to return it as the highly prized loan of good & considerate friends.”[1]

At this point in her life, the widowed Dolley Madison had very little money. She had been counting on a bill that had passed the Senate, authorizing Congress to purchase a second installment of James Madison’s papers from her, but her hopes were dashed when the House of Representatives adjourned on March 4, 1847, without acting on the bill.[2] This disappointing turn of events may have prompted Dolley’s “good & considerate friends” to offer her a loan. (Congress eventually purchased the papers in May 1848.)

Dolley Madison mentioned Ariel in this 1847 letter to John Young Mason, Secretary of the Navy. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Papers of Dolley Madison Papers.

Ariel as Messenger

It may be true that Ariel forgot a portion of the message or didn’t carry out Mason’s directive as instructed. Ariel’s delivery of the message was not the only thing causing Dolley’s “own mind [to] become a chaos,” however. Dolley was deeply distressed over her dire financial situation.

Since Ariel was acting as a messenger between John Y. Mason and Dolley Madison, it seems likely that one or the other enslaved her. From surviving letters exchanged by Dolley and her son John Payne Todd, and entries in Todd’s journals, a picture emerges of the enslaved domestic workers in Dolley’s Washington household in March 1847: Sukey (Susan Stewart), Ralph and Catharine Taylor, and the Taylors’ children William Henry, Sarah Elizabeth, and Benjamin. Matthew Stewart may also have been in Dolley’s Washington household temporarily.[3] There are no mentions of Ariel. While we can’t rule out the possibility that Ariel was enslaved by Dolley (see “Where Have All the Papers Gone?” for gaps in the documentary record), it seems more probable that Ariel was an enslaved (or perhaps free) maid in John Y. Mason’s household.

What is Ariel’s significance to the story of the Montpelier enslaved community, given that she may not have been enslaved by the Madisons? The fact that Dolley called her “our little Ariel” is a clue. Even if she was enslaved by John Y. Mason, Ariel must have carried messages to Dolley, or delivered items from the Masons to Dolley, or performed other errands that connected the Madison and Mason households, often enough that Dolley referred to her in such a familiar way. If Dolley was acquainted with Ariel, it seems likely that the Stewarts and Taylors knew her as well, so that Ariel was part of an enslaved community that overlapped Washington and Montpelier.

 

A Network of Favors

Like any good neighbors, Dolley Madison and her Washington friends exchanged favors. For enslavers, however, this extended to sharing the labor of the people they enslaved. Julia Tayloe periodically asked if Dolley would “loan” Paul Jennings to her, in much the same way that she might have asked to borrow a cup of sugar or a pair of candlesticks. (“Will you have the kindness to allow Paul to come and wait dinner for me to day? If you can spare him, without inconvenience, a few minutes before six o’clock.” “Can you loan me Paul on Friday evening 6 oclock?”)[4] Just as Julia Tayloe benefited from Paul Jennings’s skills as a waiter without enslaving him herself, Dolley Madison benefited from Ariel’s labor, whether or not she was Ariel’s enslaver. Ariel’s courier services were one more favor to be exchanged among Dolley and her friends.

References

[1] Dolley Payne Todd Madison to John Y. Mason, March 15, 1847, Papers of Dolley Madison, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, accessed January 26, 2021, MRD-S 29435, Montpelier Research Database.

[2] “The Residum of the Session,” The [Daily] National Intelligencer (Washington, DC), March 5, 1847, accessed January 26, 2021, MRD-S 47508, Montpelier Research Database.

[3] Lydia Neuroth, draft compilation on the break-up of the enslaved community, January 26, 2017, Working Notes Files, Montpelier Foundation, Orange, Virginia, accessed January 26, 2021, MRD-S 46619, Montpelier Research Database.

[4] Julia Maria Dickinson Tayloe to Dolley Payne Todd Madison, n.d., box 2, folder Julia Tayloe to Dolley Madison, Papers of Dolley Madison, Special Collections, University of Virginia Library, Charlottesville, Virginia, accessed January 26, 2021, MRD-S 27255 and MRD-S 27253, Montpelier Research Database.